Cuba: The Castros’ Ambiguous Relationship With the Catholic Church

Part 2 of 3

Signs of the revolution, including this image of Che Guevara, still dominate in Cuba, a place where faithful Catholics have held on for the past 50 years.
Signs of the revolution, including this image of Che Guevara, still dominate in Cuba, a place where faithful Catholics have held on for the past 50 years. (photo: Victor Gaetan)

HAVANA — For a brutal revolutionary who has had no problem ordering executions on a whim, Fidel Castro seems to have a soft spot in his heart for that “opiate of the masses,” organized religion, especially Catholicism.

Undoubtedly, his willingness — even occasional eagerness — to fraternize with priests on the political left and his pious attitude while in the presence of Pope John Paul II can be traced to his childhood and youth: Castro’s mother was a Rosary-reciting, prayerful Catholic, and he attended Catholic primary school and high schools, including the prestigious Jesuit preparatory school Belen College in Havana.

Never mind that he closed these schools when he took power; Fidel Castro soaked up enough Catholic sensibility that it’s a world in which he seems to function comfortably.
In 1985, Fidel gave a long series of interviews to an activist Marxist Brazilian priest known as Frei Betto. Castro repeatedly insists that Christianity and his revolutionary goals, namely full socialism, are compatible.

Published around the world as Fidel and Religion, the book demonstrates Castro’s ambiguous stance toward the Church.

On the one hand, he applauds the Jesuits who “valued character, rectitude, honesty, courage and the ability to make sacrifices. …They contributed to my development and influenced my sense of justice.” Fidel has remained close to one of his teachers from Belen, Father Amando Llorente.

Father Llorente left Cuba, resettled in Miami and died in April. He told the Register by phone before he died that he continued to have a “relationship with Fidel until March 2010.”

On the other hand, Castro insists that most Cuban clerics were allied with the wealthy class and “imperialism,” which is why they were run out of Cuba when he took power.
To Frei Betto, Castro admitted admiration for the Church: “It’s true that the rock of St. Peter, on which the Catholic Church was built, is solid and lasting. Throughout history, that institution has demonstrated its experience, its wisdom and its capacity to adapt to reality.”

Castro’s younger brother, Raul, now president of Cuba, also attended Belen College, , but he was a less accomplished student than Fidel and did not graduate from there.

Yet Raul seems to have more genuine dialogue with current Church leaders. It was Raul who negotiated in May of this year with Cardinal Jaime Ortega of Havana, first gave permission for the Ladies in White to march each week on behalf of their jailed husbands, and then in June allowed the release of these men and their families to Spain.

Asked about his own beliefs, Raul once said, “I haven’t stayed in the Church, but I’ve kept the principles of Christ. I don’t renounce those principles. They give me the hope of salvation, and the revolution carries them out.”

Some see such statements as evidence of Raul’s torn conscience — and hope he will continue this search for salvation.

As The New York Times wrote when Raul assumed power, “Until recently, few people had imagined that Raul Castro could be seen as Cuba’s best hope for reform. Still fewer would have imagined that the U.S. would be secretly hoping he succeeds.”

His actions, to date, confirm this logic.

Victor Gaetan writes from Washington.

Tomorrow: A final look at a changing Cuba.